My sister read this book before I did, and from what she told me I was expecting fluff with a blush of adventure: more or less what it promises in the first chapter, in which the mood is set for “ye olden tale of romance.” I wasn’t expecting to be quite so gutted by existential questions, blasted by regret, or enticed by sailing away and never coming back. But I want a yacht to sail on the Mediterranean now, so here we are.
The book opens with what is functionally “Once upon a time,” and that really sets the tone. It’s a fairytale, a summer daydream, and just as the setting in the beginning has turned to more modernized, sensible landscapes and architecture since the events of the story, so too the protagonist is under pressure to circle back to the call of reality at the end.
Dona, our protagonist, is dissatisfied with her frivolous London society life, and continually pushes the boundaries of decorum in an attempt to find some thrill or fulfillment to satisfy her restless spirit. After one particularly egregious transgression, which she engages upon with a friend of her husband’s, the rake Rockingham, Dona has a sudden revulsion to herself in the role she is playing and decides that her environment and companions are partially to blame. So she nopes out of London with her two young children and heads out to her slow-witted, stolid husband’s country seat to find solitude and make peace with herself. Because, yes, she is married with two children. A somewhat unlikely condition for a romance novel heroine, but it subtly amps up the stakes without having to be dramatic about it (though it does get dramatic later anyway, don’t worry).
Arriving without notice at her absent husband’s estate (which means he didn’t come with her and isn’t there, not that he is habitually absent—though I suppose the case could be made on a psychological/metaphorical level for his absenteeism, but I digress), she is greeted by a singular set of circumstances—a lone servant she had not met on her previous stay there caring for the entire house and grounds by himself, talk of foreign pirates along the coast terrorizing the vulnerable, and the peculiar realisation that somebody who reads French poetry had been making free with her bedroom in her absence. Dun, dun, DUN!
With this initial setup, I expected sparks flying any minute. I was instead treated to a very sedate pace of discovery, encounters, countryside getting-to-know-yous, and the like. Du Maurier spends a deal of time creating an idyllic, insular world in which Dona can finally be free of her restraints (because of course there is a nurse to watch the kids, don’t worry about motherhood being a drag), mull over her existence, and experiment with the life she might have had if she hadn’t gotten married to the first man whose eyes she liked. And it’s enjoyable, living a hypothetical daydream with Dona in the lethargic heat of summer, stealing away to campfires by shaded creeks with an engaging stranger, and generally disregarding any knowledge of time passing. So enjoyable, in fact, that it was a third to a halfway through the book before I realised that there was absolutely no conflict to be seen anywhere. Everything is pretty much perfect.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict; as I said, Dona’s life circumstances provide an undercurrent of internal and external conflicts that accompany her on her adventures, but there is nothing immediate and tense, because even those connections (her children, family, status) are not under direct threat. There is just the potential for it looming faintly in the background, almost forgotten, if I’m honest. The only thing that saved me from disinterest was of course the exquisite writing which can always be counted upon from Du Maurier, likeable characters, wry and unexpected dialogue, and of course, the knowledge that the wind was about to change, so to speak.
A dangerous pirate raid brings back Dona in her initially self-despised role as a prankster, pusher of boundaries, societal transgressor. This mirrors the turning point at the beginning that set Dona on her first search for change—but now she is suddenly faced with a potential for a life she didn’t dream she would get a second chance at having, with someone other than her husband. It’s a siren call of freedom from responsibility and repression, promising the romance (in more ways than one) of a foreign voyage with an endearing captain. Remarkably, even this critical point, though there are a few small hiccups, does not provide much in the way of external conflict, and her internal conflict is on the verge of being resolved in the same breath.
But that background conflict I mentioned? The one with her family and status? Well, it comes into play in full force with the sudden appearance of her husband Harry, with friend Rockingham, at a critical moment that threatens the fantasy she’s been living in without consequences all summer. And this is where Dona has to finally, emphatically make her choice, without interference or pressure from anyone else. In a sense, this is the point where she comes into her own as a character who chooses her own life and how she will live it. She has been evolving throughout the whole story, ruminating on the world, her fate, and how she fits into it. She has been getting stronger, more resourceful, and more self-determined, and now we get to see the outcome of this transformative experience in her subsequent actions. There is danger, there is derring-do, there is a desperate fight on a stairwell, a prison break—but while entertaining and fitting with what we were led to expect in the beginning, the action and its outcome is not the ultimate decider of Dona’s fate. And it’s kind of brilliant the quiet way in which Du Maurier sets it up to subvert expectations.
I was happy with the ending—it was bittersweet, but it felt right. I’ve been trying to be very vague with details about plot points so that interested readers can go on and enjoy them as they appear, and I’ve done the same with characters for the same reason—because once you know who a couple of the main characters are as people, you can tell where the plot is going to go. But I will say this and I say it unapologetically: I always felt kindly toward the well-meaning but dense husband Harry, perhaps because he reminded me of another hulking, foppish English gentleman with seemingly not a brain in his head, Sir Percival Blakeney, though I do think the resemblance probably stops there. And the seemingly insignificant, shallow admission of Dona that she married him because she liked his eyes strikes my romantic little heart with a hidden depth of potential and meaning.
I enjoyed this book by Du Maurier for all that it is, yet agree with my sister’s comment that “It is the perfect length for the type of story—it couldn’t have gone on longer.” A good estimation of a daydream, come to think of it.
For another great, and more succint, take on Frenchman’s Creek, check out the Amy’s review on Curiouser and Curiouser.